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News, 2 October 2000

2 October 2000

2 October 2000 The official solicitor in England plans to use the new Human Rights Act, which comes into force today, to argue against the withdrawal of feeding tubes from two brain-damaged patients. The Act gives certain aspects of the European Convention on Human Rights particular status in English law, and Laurence Oates will argue in the High Court that to end tube-feeding breaches the convention's second article. This states that everyone's right to life should be protected by law. More than 20 patients in so-called persistent or permanent vegetative states (PVS) have had their feeding tubes withdrawn since the case of Tony Bland [in 1993]. One of the patients being represented by Mr Oates is considered to be in a PVS, while the other is thought to be in a near PVS since suffering a heart attack last January. The two test cases could lead to the legal situation with regard to PVS patients being completely redefined, although supporters of the withdrawal of nutrition and hydration from brain-damaged patients might cite the convention's third article which states that no-one should be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment. [The Times and Daily Telegraph, 2 October] A British national newspaper has said that teams at two English hospitals have secretly transplanted tissue from aborted unborn children in an attempt to treat Huntington's disease, an inherited and fatal brain condition. The Observer newspaper claimed that Addenbrooke's hospital in Cambridge and King's College Hospital in London had conducted the operations. It reported that the Cambridge Brain Repair Centre, in conjunction with Addenbrooke's hospital, plans another two operations soon with a further six next year. Foetal cell transplants for patients with Parkinson's disease ceased in England ten years ago, although they have continued in some other European countries. Dr Roger Barker from Addenbrooke's hospital insisted that the mothers of the aborted unborn children had signalled their intention to have an abortion before being asked to donate their foetuses. The research is being funded by the Medical Research Council. The Catholic Church expressed concern at the news, and the Life charity pointed out that the transplants had no proven medical benefit. [The Observer and The Age, 1 October] Despite the English Court of Appeal's ruling that Siamese twins Jodie and Mary should be separated, and their parents' decision not to appeal to the House of Lords, the twins might still avoid separation because the doctor in charge of the case has refused to go ahead with the procedure. The surgeon is reported to think that the operation is too risky and that both sisters could die as a result. [The Sun, 2 October] Delegates at a pro-euthanasia conference in London have heard calls for an open debate on the topics of euthanasia and eugenics. The conference, sponsored by the International Association of Bioethics, was addressed by Peter Singer, an Australian philosopher who has argued that parents should be allowed to kill their children after birth in certain circumstances. Dr Jan Hartman from Poland told the meeting that eugenics should be reopened "as a topic for ethical consideration" and urged delegates to "take the risk of imagining what may be unavoidable in the next century - the eugenics society". [Catholic Herald, 29 September] Planned Parenthood facilities in a number of American states have signalled their intentions to make the RU-486 abortion pill available before the end of the year, following its approval for use by the Food and Drug Administration last week. Pro-life groups have condemned the move and Susan E Willis, assistant director of the US Catholic bishops' secretariat for pro-life activities, has highlighted the danger posed by the drug to women's health. She observed: "There is no lack of means or places to get an abortion in the United States, so it's peculiar that the agency would proceed with approval despite the risks. There's only one explanation for the action: Their hope is that, in the hands of primary care providers, the abortion drug combination will 'mainstream' abortion and end the public debate over abortion forever." [MSNBC, 28 September, and other items, from Pro-Life Infonet] The health minister of New Zealand is considering an application to license the abortion pill [RU-486]. If Annette King approves the application, the drug could be available in the country by the middle of next year. [IRN News, 2 October] The Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, passed by the US House of Representatives last week, has been introduced into the Senate by Republican senator Rick Santorum. It may be debated without having to clear a committee stage, although Democrat senators are pursuing a policy aimed at frustrating substantive legislative attempts by Republicans. [Life Advocacy Briefing, week of 2 October]

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